Before I emigrated to Australia (eight years ago) I didn’t get too many chances to shoot coastal landscapes. Sure I’d use my camera when we went on holiday, but a week away with the family is not enough time to get to grips with this demanding type of photography. However (like most Aussies), I live near the coast now and it’s the place where I spend most time with my camera. All of which has given me the opportunity to discover some of the practicalities of shooting coastal landscapes and I’d like to share that information with you guys.
The coast can be a bloody dangerous place and no landscape photo is worth dying for. I don’t want to sound like your concerned Aunty Pam, but try not to become one of the closing stories on the evening news. They don’t put those ‘Dangerous Cliffs’ signs up for vanity.
Even if you’re a regular visitor to the coast, you should pay special attention to the surf forecast. Photographers can and do get swept off rocks, just like the rock fishermen do. You can sit and observe the same spot for 15 minutes making sure it’s not getting hit by waves but this does not account for long frequency swells in which monster waves roll in every 30-60 minutes. Unless you’re a very experienced waterman, the safest way to photograph a big swell is from a safe vantage point on land through a zoom lens.
In terms of weather, don’t be put off by a poor forecast. The coast often looks its most dramatic when there’s a storm blowing in.
Check the tide times too and try to time visits on a receding tide so you have more shoreline to play with and less chance of getting cut off. Low tide may prove unsuitable though because all you’ll get is weed and detritus and not enough actual ocean in your shot.
Before you go, let someone know where you’re heading. Tell them how long you expect to be there and if you over-run, call and let them know that all’s well and what your revised departure time is. Before I head out the door I always let my wife know what my plans are and if they change I call her.
If you’re planning to shoot sunrise or at night then visit your chosen location in the day first in order to work out likely vantage points. Work out how you get on and off the location and where you can safely leave your stuff, particularly if you’re the sort of photographer that takes every bit of photo gear they own with them on their back.
Personally speaking I travel light. Really light. Generally speaking I take my camera (I only have one) and a maximum of two lenses, one of which is on the camera and the other is in my pocket. I’m not sure what the advantage of lugging a suitcase full of photographic equipment around is, but I can only imagine that it restricts movements and leads to moments of hesitation when you’re wondering about which glass to stick on the camera next.
In terms of filters I use precisely one – a circular polariser. If you subscribe to the ‘getting it right in the camera’ mantra, then by all means bring along your collection of ND grads, but personally I just shoot bracketed shots (usually three, sometimes five). I don’t want to miss out on a shot because I’m fiddling about lining up the horizon with the slab of smokey glass stuck on the front of my camera.
I use a Manfrotto Travel Tripod. It’s light, relatively cheap and very well built. When your tripod is always immersed in saltwater its lifespan is going to be limited but I find that a quick drenching under the beach shower on the way back to the car is sufficient to remove all the salty water. Yes there are much sturdier tripods around but I wouldn’t fancy clambering over rocks with some hefty hunk of metal under my arm.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I like to keep myself as mobile as possible and while it means sacrificing a bit of flexibility, it more than makes up for itself in portability. Shooting on the coast, particularly right by the water is so much better if you can quickly react to the rapidly changing conditions.
When it comes to clothing, I always dress so that I can get wet if required – boardshorts, a hoodie and a pair of Crocs on my feet. Crocs are the perfect footwear for the coastal landscape photographer – grippy, happy in the water and very comfortable. Why would you restrict where you can stand by wearing a pair of trainers?
While any camera’s perfectly capable of taking good shots of the coast, there are definitely features that are worth having and far and away the most useful of those is weatherproof housing. While I have a Canon 550D (which is about as waterproof as a teabag) there are great advantages in knowing that an incoming wave or a rain shower is not going to destroy your camera. You can of course add some sort of waterproof covering to your camera, anything from a cheap plastic enclosure to a full-blown underwater housing.
In terms of features it’s best to have a camera with the flexibility to set ISO, exposure and aperture. That doesn’t mean you need to buy a DSLR, many point-and-shoots now have this capability and are infinitely more portable than a hulking great Canon or Nikon.
Typically speaking there are two main kinds of shot that I take when I’m at the coast – a quick exposure to freeze action (such as waves) and a longer exposure to capture the blurred movement in the water. When I’m down at sea level photographing water flowing over the surface of rocks I try and aim for about 1/8th of a second exposure – I’ve found that’s the sweet spot for retaining the look of water while getting some nice blur in it. Any longer and the water starts to look like mist and any shorter and it’ll freeze it.
Don’t be afraid to ramp your ISO up a bit as light start to fade. My Canon’s not got the greatest high ISO noise reduction but I’ll happily go to 400 in order to keep my exposure in that 1/8th of a second region and those of you with better/newer cameras can go way higher than that.
In terms of aperture I shoot almost everything at f/8 because that’s the sweet-spot on my lens (10-22mm) – if you want to know what your lens’s sweet spot is, there’s a good guide over at BHPhoto. If I’m shooting a sunset then I’ll sometimes switch to f/16 to get that nice bokeh from the sun’s rays.
I shoot absolutely everything in RAW. I have no interest in seeing how my camera has decided to process an image – I want to make those decisions in Lightroom. Also with a RAW file you can maximise the captured light to its fullest by boosting shadows and dropping highlights to bring back detail on the right side of the histogram.
As I said, I shoot with a super-wide angle lens and I can thoroughly recommend this for all coastal photography. In order to get the most out of these lenses you need to get very close to your foreground subject and for this reason be prepared to get down low. I quite often pre-focus the camera and then sit it on a rock, lining up the shot with the screen on the back.
While it’s great to have a point of interest in your photo, such as a shell, a bit of seaweed, a rock, a person or a boat – don’t forget that the light can often fulfil this requirement. If you’ve got a great sunrise or sunset, look for light pooling in the rocks or on the surface of the ocean and use that as your point of interest. In short – don’t obsess about having some perfect little sea shell in the bottom left of your frame.
You’ll hear lots of talk about the rules of photography, such as the rule of thirds. I try and ignore each and every one of these because I think they’re utter rubbish. When you put that viewfinder to your eye you can work out what the best composition is yourself without relying on some crappy grid of nine squares. If that means putting the horizon line in the lower eighth of your frame, then so be it. If it means putting that point of interest right on the centre line of the frame, then so be it. Be lead by your own eye, not by some worthless compositional rules.
Remember that you don’t have to shoot everything three inches from the crashing waves and that the best shots are often to be found above and behind the coast. Check out the view from the back of the beach or up on the cliffs too.
Photographing the coast can be exhilarating and provide you with stunning images. However it’s a dangerous place and you should prepare for a visit. Many of the techniques you’d use on standard landscape photography (such as long exposures) work equally well (if not better) on the coast so don’t be afraid to apply your existing expertise here.
Forget about the profession of being a photographer. First be a photographer and maybe the profession will come after. Don’t be in a rush to make pay your rent with your camera. Jimi Hendrix didn’t decide on the career of professional musician before he learned to play guitar. No, he loved music and and created something beautiful and that THEN became a profession. Larry Towell, for instance, was not a “professional” photographer until he was already a “famous” photographer. Make the pictures you feel compelled to make and perhaps that will lead to a career. But if you try to make the career first, you will just make shitty pictures that you don’t care about.
It’s the winter school holidays here and my family and I decided to take a bit of time-out in one of our neighbouring regions. I’ve explored a fair bit of Far South Coast NSW, but only on day trips and it’s of course a lot easier to photograph sunrises and sunsets when you don’t face a three hour journey there and back.
We stayed in Narooma which is about in the middle of Far South Coast NSW and also happens to be the prettiest of the towns on that stretch of coast. We spent three nights in the Amooran Oceanside Apartments & Motel and, if you’re ever down that way, I can highly recommend them (not a paid-for recommendation incidentally, it’s just a good hotel).
Alright, so our first port of call was Tilba. There’s actually two Tilbas – Central Tilba (the main village with the shops) and Tilba Tilba which is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet with a petrol station and two shops in it. You can take a little walk up into the hills about Central Tilba and it’s well worth it because the scenery is stunning.
The village of Central Tilba is of course a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s a very pretty one and I reckon we can forgive it when the place looks like this in the middle of winter. Pretty much all the shops in the village are touristy – the usual collection of arts and crafts, cafes and clothes stores. We had lunch at the Tilba Teapot Cafe which was awesome.
Just outside Tilba you can find Corunna Lake. We were whizzing past in the car when I caught it out of the corner of my eye and we stopped and took some photos. There’s a boat ramp here but I found the best viewpoint was next to the small bridge that goes over the creek flowing into the lake.
After Tilba we headed further south down to Bermagui. Wasn’t that taken with the town itself but the beach and the famous local landmark Camel Rock were looking good. Had a slight mishap on the rocks here and fell against a rock with camera on my shoulder causing the focus ring to pop. Thought I’d broken it, but a slight twist and it all popped back into place. I was a bit more careful after that.
On our second day we decided to do something adventurous and after a bit of lively debate settled on a scenic flight from Moruya Airport. It was a perfect day for it and we flew north from Moruya up over Batemans Bay and then back along the coastline to the airport.
The views up and down the coast were really awesome. Our pilot Sheldon had great information about all the various landmarks we flew over and we got a great view of the Toll Gate islands which sit right in the middle of the Clyde River at Batemans Bay.
I was particularly interested in seeing Guerilla Bay from the air because this is one of our favourite spots in the warmer months. You can see the bay in the middle-left of the photo above with the awesome headland leading off to the left.
Even the view on the final stretch as we were coming in to land at Moruya was great. Check out all the pristine national park that surrounds the place.
Glasshouse Rocks is one of the most famous landmarks on this whole stretch of coast, the Far South equivalent of Cathedral Rocks here in South Coast NSW. However I will confess that of the two, Glasshouse is far and away the nicest. This is primarily because Glasshouse Rocks is far more extensive than Cathedral Rocks and is in a far nicer setting. There are simply more photographic possibilities at Glasshouse and the rocks themselves are much more interesting looking than their northern counterparts.
At the north end of Surf Beach there are some great rock formations under the cliffs. You can also photograph these from the 18th tee on the golf course which is on the headland you can see in the background here.
The other famous landmark in Narooma is Australia Rock (or Aussie Rock if you prefer). This is located down on the inlet and I’m told by the locals that it used to look a lot more like an outline map of Australia until newly-wed couples started posing in it and wearing away the rocks! I took the photograph above at sunrise and was lucky enough to have a colourful sky to contrast with the dark volcanic rocks.
Glasshouse Rocks is an awesome and a very photographed location and as we were staying in Narooma it was the perfect opportunity to do a sunrise shoot down at the rocks. So I set the alarm early on the first morning and headed down there at 6am. Unfortunately I hadn’t had time to recce the area and so had to rely on online information and Google Maps.
You get to Glasshouse Rocks down Glasshouse Rocks Road (the clue’s in the name). I followed the road down and ended up at the town cemetery. Acknowledging to myself the fact that photographers are a bit nutty to be wandering around graveyards at silly hours of the day particularly when there’s a full moon, I had a good look around but couldn’t find any path down to the beach and the locals weren’t saying anything. So I had another look on Google Maps and saw that there was a Glasshouse Rocks lookout just down the track a bit. When I arrived it turned out it was up a very rutted dirt track that my Golf would have struggled with, so I parked up and walked to the top and it turned out to be only about 500m. Unfortunately the marked ‘lookout’ was all overgrown with scrubby bushes, but I spotted a well-trodden track leading off to the north which I followed. Now with higher hopes, I followed the path in the dark looking for a way down. As I rounded a clump of trees, sure I’d located the way down, I found myself back in, yes you’ve guessed it, the cemetery. Deciding to cut my losses for the morning, I got back in the car and drove back around to Surf Beach.
On the last day of our trip I decided to try again. Having spent more time researching it online many photographers mentioned a path near the cemetery so I parked up again. The conditions were fairly lousy and I could see it wasn’t going to be the most colourful of sunrises but I set off around the back of the cemetery with a more powerful torch. I followed the path behind a white fence and then, after about 20m in the bush I saw a track on my left. I investigated it and as I walked to it saw another track leading down! Hallelujah!
I walked down the track and finally found myself on the right beach. It was at that moment that it started to rain. That’d be fine if I had a posh camera but I use a little old Canon 550D which is not weatherproof. So I stuffed the camera down my fleece and walked up the beach hoping that it didn’t start raining too hard. I set up and took my first shot, just as it started raining hard. I stowed the camera again hoping it would ease off and it did. I was a bit wet but the camera was fine. I managed to get about 30 minutes on the beach before the rain got too heavy and I had to beat my retreat. Given the circumstances I’m happy with the shots I got.
On my way back home through the cemetery I stopped for one last shot down onto the rocks and found this single red flower growing on the cliff-face.
On our last day we decided to take the long way home and my wife Catherine and son Josh went to Mogo Zoo while I went to check out a unique location that I’d been meaning to visit for some time.
I headed into the Murramurang National Park and paid a visit to Myrtle Beach. This is where the sandstone cliffs of the Sydney Basin come to an end and meet the much older Wagonga Ordovician rocks of the Lachlan Fold Belt, which continue south. The point where two major geological units meet is called an unconformity and this unconformity can be seen in the cliff face at the northern to middle section of the beach. Just to put this in perspective, the sedimentary rock that forms the Sydney Basin stretches all the way from Newcastle in the north to the beaches just south of Durras and inland to take in the Blue Mountains. So in the photo below you can see the very beginning of the old rocks laid down 150 million years before those of the Sydney basin were even formed.
I’ve been taking photographs for a while now. I first got the bug when I was about 10 years old and took shots on a dinky little Kodak Instamatic that chewed through rolls of 126 film. When I was a teenager I started developing and printing my own black and white photos in the family bathroom using a second-hand enlarger I bought at a bring-and-buy sale. When I went to college I took photos for the college newspaper and did moody selfies on a 10 second timer as I pouted down leafy avenues in a WWII style bomber jacket I erroneously thought looked cool. After college my first job was as a journalist for a computer magazine and I got to play with the very first digital cameras, the very first camera-phones and the very first DSLRs.
So photography has been my hobby and, in some ways, my job for some time now and I’m as keen on it now as I was when I was 10. I enjoy getting out and taking photographs whenever possible. I really don’t care what the weather’s doing, I’m happy to go out in all conditions, but I’m a sucker for bright colours and that of course means I love sunrises and sunsets. If I don’t go out for a few days, I get restless and can only last a few days before the urge to get outside with my trusty Canon gets the better of me.
As a result of all the above I take a lot of photographs and like most photographers, I like sharing those photographs. However as much as I love to share my photos online on photo sites and social networks, there’s one thing that I absolutely hate. So here, on my little old blog I would just like to declare the following.
I don’t want your constructive criticism.
Now I don’t want to come across as some smarmy arsehole who thinks he knows it all, because I really don’t know it all. Far from it in fact – there are huge areas of photography that are a total mystery to me – things like studio photography for instance – I haven’t got a clue. Ask me to photograph a model with strobes and I’ll probably pass out from the exertion of figuring it all out.
However none of the above matters for a single nano-second; if I put a photograph online then it’s because right then, at that moment, I’m happy with it. If other people like it too, then that’s brilliant. If nobody likes it, then that’s fine and dandy. Likes and dislikes I can deal with, because you can’t force someone to enjoy something, but ‘expert’ reviews I can do without. If I don’t put “CC welcome” at the bottom of my image (and hell is going to freeze over first) then please keep your unsolicited opinions to yourself.
The problem with photography is that every single part of it, from the tiniest of details to the broadest of topics, is utterly subjective and every single photographer there is, or ever has been, does things their own way. So when you look at a photo you frame it within your worldview and you form an opinion of that photo based on that worldview. All of that’s fine, what is not fine is suggesting that your worldview is any better than mine or that the techniques you’d employ when taking a similar shot are in some way preferable to the ones I used.
You wouldn’t have saturated the image that much? Awesome. I don’t care. You’d have removed the power-lines? Terrific. I don’t care. You would have exposed it for slightly longer? Magnificent. I don’t care. You might have a thousand reasons why you think my photo has been taken or processed incorrectly and I couldn’t give a shit about a single one of them. I am not interested in making my photos look like yours, I am interested in doing things my own way, however good or bad that may (subjectively) be.
I would also like to point out that I do not expect to have high praise endlessly lavished on my photos either. As I said, it’s entirely subjective and what floats my boat may have all the appeal of a poke in the eye to you. That’s cool! Imagine how shit this world would be if we all liked the same thing. If you don’t like my photo, move on, there are billions and billions more out there, all waiting for you. Enjoy.
So if you’re one of those photographers who think it’s okay to explain how a photo could have been taken ‘better’, just stop for a second and ask yourself if the photographer is going to care what you think. If you were at a concert, would you leap on stage in between songs and suggest a different rhythm to the drummer? If you were at a gallery opening would you remonstrate with the artist about the angle of their brush or the colour of the paint? Would you charge into the kitchen in the middle of a meal and ask the chef to justify their choice of herbs? I’m betting you wouldn’t. So stop doing it on photographs. Unless someone asks directly for it – keep your ‘constructive’ criticism to yourself and take a second to try and enjoy what the photographer has created.
Alison Craig writes:
Watching a spectacular sunset last week, I wondered how long after sunset the color in the sky would remain. Using TPE’s elevation above the horizon tools, plus a bit of Excel, I came up with some figures that estimate how long you can expect clouds to retain those spectacular sunset colors. We put the information into an infographic. There’s even a “science bit” at the end
Let me start this article by saying that it’s just a light-hearted dig in the ribs, not a serious academic article on originality. Hell, take a look through my portfolio and you’ll find my fair share of cliched photographs in there – I photograph sunrises and sunsets which are not the most original subject matter in the world! Often though we have to work with what we’re given and it’s not always possible to fly to the Maldives and photograph bio-luminescent starfish under a dark sky during a comet shower. In truth I do beat myself up about how original (otherwise) my photos are and I do strive to do better. So anyway, here’s my top ten list. What would you add?
1. Burning Steel Wool Night Shots. These shots are everywhere. Stick a bit of steel wool on a string, light it and have your friend twirl it in circles down at the local abandoned brick-works. Here’s me burning steel wool in a tunnel. Here’s me burning steel wool on the beach. Here’s me burning steel wool at the Grand Freakin’ Canyon. Remind me again what it adds to the photograph?
2. The Northern Lights. (Small gasp from readers). Yep, I’m going to put it out there. I’m pretty sure I first saw a photograph of the northern lights in some 1960s edition of National Geographic. I was impressed. Now it seems like every landscape photographer seeking to prove they’re a proper landscape photographer has to make some sacred pilgrimage to Iceland or Norway so they can shoot ‘the lights’ and add breathy captions about how privileged they are to photograph it. I think I probably get more shots of the northern lights in my news feed than I do shots of sunsets. Or lonely trees.
3. Star Trails. This is one cliche I’ve managed to dodge so far – the venerable old star trail. Originally taken by astro-photographers to calibrate their telescopes, they’re now everywhere. You know what would impress me? Star Trails over Las Vegas!
4. Sunset shot with another photographer hunched over their tripod to the side of the frame. Quite specific, yes, but think about how many times you’ve seen one of these? Yes, I’m guilty of this one too. In my defense I took the shot because I was frustrated the other photographer was standing in a better location than me.
5. The Lonely Tree. Here’s a venerable photographic cliche that shows no signs of fading in popularity. The old lonely tree in a field/on a hillside/in the mist. I have a couple of these in my collection. It’s the photographic equivalent of putting Dire Straits on at a wedding reception.
6. The Deliberate Black and White. And by deliberate I mean ‘it looked shit in colour, let’s see how it turns out in black and white’. This is an age-old way of trying to save a shot. If you have to resort to converting it to mono, it’s not worth saving.
7. Bevels, Embossing and Frames. Okay, not strictly speaking a photo cliche, but a presentational one, but still. I have yet to see a photo ‘enhanced’ by a drop shadow, bevel or frame that improved the image in any way, shape or form. It’s the photographic equivalent of sticking a crocheted cover on your bog roll. Stop doing it.
8. Nuclear-Grade Saturation. Nobody likes vibrant colours more than me – most of my shots are sunrise or sunset and taken with a polariser to make the colours really pop. But I try and leave the saturation slider alone when I’m processing my photos because they cease to look natural and because I don’t like doing my post-processing wearing a welding mask for retinal protection. Increasingly it seems that acid-trip style saturated photos are the go. I can’t say I really blame photographers for using it because for some god-forsaken reason they’re the images that do best on Facebook and Instagram.
9. Inside the Wave. Ten years ago it would have cost you about $10k just for the underwater enclosure for your camera, but in this era of Go-Pros and $400 underwater cases and waterproof point-and-shoots, anyone can get out in the surf. Which means a deluge of shots taken inside a wave. The problem here is that 99% of them are not epic Clark Little shore-breaking barrels, but one foot tricklers taken by someone standing in knee-deep surf, firing off hundreds of click-and-pray shots in the hope that one of ‘em turns out okay!
10. Over-blown HDR. Here’s one I’ve been guilty of in the past, but I’ve seen the error of my ways. I’m sure you know the kind of HDR I’m talking about, where every tiny indentation in stone is like a high contrast grand canyon, where all 16million shades of colour are present, where it ceases to look like a photograph and instead resembles an electron-scanning microscope’s close-up of bacteria. HDRs were never intended to look like this and they’ve become one the biggest photographic cliches there is. For pity’s sake, think of the children!